How you treat people matters more than anything.  Companies should create a culture of respect, and every leader should have an obligation to uphold a no-jerk environment because it allows for great work to be done and it is simply the right thing to do.

The impact of a toxic worker is quite significant.Experts say, when a team member procrastinates or displays a bad attitude, there is a real risk of social contagion, which drives down the morale and productivity of those around them. Susan Davis, author of Emotional Agility contends, “we all pick up on settle cues from others, and that affects our behavior and actions.” This behavior can lead to poor team efficiency, lower levels of commitment, and less of a focus on the shared goals.  Furthermore, ignoring the issue makes the problem more acute.  According to Allan Cohen, Babson Professor of Global Leadership, when people do not carry their weight, frustration grows because others need to do more.

Knowing this negative impact, here are some things a company can do to protect the culture from toxic workers:

1. Screen them out in the hiring process.  If you determine that somebody could exhibit toxic behavior, perhaps they care only about individual results at the expense of others, do not hire them, no matter how capable and brilliant they may be.  Professor of Management Science at Stanford University Bob Sutton said that toxic people make us less productive. Maybe you cannot be certain if somebody has a lot of jerk behaviors during the interview, but you can do everything you can to find out more in the hiring process. Luis Von Ahn, CEO and Cofounder of Duolingo offers this advice.  When you contact their reference, you can ask, “Did he/she work well with others?”  You are looking for a more definitive and enthusiastic response like “absolutely” over a more wishy-washy one – “yeah, for most people.”  Maybe you detect the reference is being coy, you can frame your questions to elicit specific choices.  For example, “what’s more likely – that this person will be a total pushover or a little manipulative?”  “Work more by themselves or inclined to work with others?”  Listen closely to these responses because they can contain the exact answers you are seeking. 

2. Align stated company values with practiced behaviors. If you ask a set of random employees, who are the superstars in the organization and you find out that they are the top producers who also happen to be toxic at times, it seems as if the company is rewarding bad behavior.  So how can you practice what you preach? If you care about teamwork, how are you building that in your incentive and promotion strategy to reward that kind of behavior?  For example, the stated values of Enron in the 90s were communication, respect, integrity, and excellence. They claimed they valued good behavior, but they actually rewarded ruthlessness and selfishness. When you incentivize individual achievement rather than promoting people based on how they elevate others, it contributes to a toxic culture. How about a mixed approach? Part of their compensation can be directly related to how much they have helped others, exhibited through observation and peer feedback, and part can be from their individual contributions.

3. Make the offenders aware of how they are treating people. You can offer “360 reviews” where leaders can receive valuable data from their peers, subordinates, direct reports, and others.  Sometimes it is just that awareness that their behavior is problematic which can be enough to course correct. When Cindy Hess, Partner at a law firm learned of some selfish behaviors she had which were revealed through reviews, she was stunned and took steps to make adjustments. Companies can offer management training programs to help build the cadre of soft skills that help leaders invest in others.  

Another way to raise awareness is for companies to provide a free-market approach where their subordinates have some say in choosing their boss or team lead. At Fenwick and West, Partners choose their associates to service their clients but Associates have every right to say no if they feel it is not a right fit.  They obviously prefer to pick Partners who they enjoy working with, who they can learn from, and who will take an interest in their development and career trajectory.  If none of the Associates are picking you, that exposes a hard truth.  Similarly, if there is a mentorship program and mentees get to pick who they want to work with based on reputation, and again you keep getting passed up, this needs to be explored and addressed.  To make sure leaders know how they are being viewed, the company does anonymous upward reviews were Junior Associates rate Senior Partners.  According to Glassdoor, Fenwick and West is one of the top Silicon Valley law firms to work for in terms of cultural excellence. 

4. Have a Zero Tolerance Policy. You cannot allow demeaning or disrespectful behavior from anybody, including upper management.  When companies act swiftly, it sends a message that this conduct will not be tolerated and employees will be protected.  This does not mean that there will be no hard conversations or people will not get upset from time to time, but that there will be consequences for repeated poor behavior.  If somebody is getting frequent complaints and they refuse to acknowledge the problem or change their behavior, they should be let go.  Studies show the presence of one person exhibiting toxic behavior can bring down a whole team, that it is better to have a hole in the team than to have an additional person that is not helpful. Studies also show that it is actually much more profitable to replace a worker displaying poor behavior with an average performer, as opposed to upgrading an average performer to star status, it is because the one who is showing negativity has a much more damaging impact.

There is no such thing as a perfect culture, but companies can do their best to create an environment that values support, respect, and positive interactions.  We spend so much of our time at work that it is only right to expect that we are treated with dignity so we can give our best performance.

Quote of the day: “I am thankful to all those difficult people in my life, they have shown me exactly who I do not want to be!” – Unknown

As a leadership development and executive coach, I work with people to have difficult conversations, contact me to explore this topic further.

Q: How does your company protect you from toxic workers and maintain an amazing culture?  Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you!

Getting rid of a toxic culture begins with removing a toxic person